SEATTLE — Last year’s arrest of a 9-year-old Portland, Ore., girl who was handcuffed and taken to a police station without a parent or guardian has spurred community outrage and led to the review of law enforcement policies for minors.
“She was in a swimsuit, a pink Velcro wraparound towel. I’ll never get the image out of my mind,” Latoya Harris, the girl’s mother, told the Portland Citizen Review Committee at a hearing Wednesday night. “They handcuffed her and walked her about two feet to the cop car and took her downtown. They wouldn’t let me accompany her.”
The child, who has not been identified, had allegedly been involved in a fight with another girl of the same age at a Boys &Girls Club in Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood on April 26, 2013. After staff members broke up the fight, both girls were suspended from activities, said Traci Rose, club spokeswoman.
The second girl’s mother later called the Portland Police Bureau to report the incident, said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a police spokesman, “and that started the investigation.”
Six days after the incident, police officers drove to Harris’ house and arrested her daughter on a charge of assault in the fourth degree, a Class A misdemeanor. Simpson said he did not believe that the district attorney’s office pressed charges against the child.
Harris filed a complaint with the city’s Independent Police Review Division about how her daughter was treated by the officers, Simpson said. “It was investigated, and ultimately found there was no applicable police policy violation.”
“To find an officer in violation, you have to have a tangible policy or law,” he said, “and there isn’t one that exists” against handcuffing children. “When an officer makes an arrest for a crime, there is no exception from handcuffing for age. The policy does not allow for an officer not handcuffing someone who is being arrested.”
But Joe Hagedorn, chief supervising attorney for the juvenile unit of the Metropolitan Public Defender, argues that police did have some discretion in how they treated the child.
“They didn’t have to arrest her,” said Hagedorn, whose law firm represents young people going through the justice system. “There was no ongoing crime. … They had discretion not to do it. While there is a gap, they are given a lot of discretion. They chose not to use that discretion. They had plenty of opportunities to do something else.”
The police bureau had already instituted a review of all of its policies, Simpson said, but the girl’s arrest and ensuing uproar caused authorities to prioritize those concerning juveniles. The policies are posted on the Portland police website, and the public has been invited to comment online.
“My daughter has never been the same after this,” Harris told the advisory Citizen Review Committee in testimony that was posted on OregonLive.com. “We’re talking about a straight-A, spunky, sassy girl, who is now angry and withdrawn.”
Harris said that neighborhood children who witnessed the arrest later taunted and bullied her daughter, calling her “a jailbird.” Adults, Harris said, started treating the girl “like a troubled child. They felt police wouldn’t arrest her for no reason.”
Harris was left with no alternative, she told the committee, but to put her child, who is now 10, in a different school.
“They should not be allowed — because there is no law — to strip a child of her rights,” she said. “I saw two grown men with badges and guns bully my 9-year-old child. … It broke something in her. It shouldn’t have happened. They treated her like a hardened criminal.”
Harris said she would have had no problem with police questioning the girl and giving her a citation, “because what she did was wrong. But they didn’t do that.”
Mark McKechnie, executive director of a nonprofit law firm called Youth, Rights &Justice, said his organization had written a draft policy for the city to consider while it reviews police practices.
His organization, which represents children in the juvenile justice and foster systems, recommends a new policy that, among other changes, would not allow police to take children under 10 into custody without a court order.
“In our experience, this was quite unusual,” said McKechnie, who attended the Wednesday hearing. “I think it’s got a lot of people scratching their heads, including the police bureau. There wasn’t a policy on this probably because before now no one thought it was needed.”